Abubakar Muhammad Shekau was once thought to have been killed, but has re-emerged to lead Islamist group Boko Haram from the shadows as it carries out a bloody onslaught in northern Nigeria.
Very little is known about Shekau, but this week he appeared on YouTube, threatening more attacks and saying Boko Haram was responsible for the January 20 violence which killed 185 people in Kano in reprisal for the arrest and torture of its members.
Aged 43, he was born in a farming village also called Shekau in northeastern Yobe state.
He moved to the nearby city of Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s base, about a decade ago, according to sources familiar with the group.
Shekau studied theology under local clerics in the Mafoni area of Maiduguri and enrolled in a government-run school for Islamic studies.
He is often shown in photos wearing a keffiyeh and seated next to an AK-47, his face intense.
A video released on YouTube earlier this month portrayed a markedly different man compared to earlier images -- he appeared considerably heavier, for example -- but a Western diplomat said “we assessed it was Shekau.”
He was seen as the second-in-command of Boko Haram at the time of a 2009 uprising put down by a brutal military assault which left some 800 people dead.
The leader at the time, Mohammed Yusuf, was captured by soldiers and handed over to police. He was later killed when police claimed he was trying to escape, though rights groups have called it a summary execution.
The two were said to have met through a man named Mamman Nur, thought to be the group’s third-in-command at the time of the uprising and who authorities labeled the mastermind of an August suicide attack on UN headquarters in Abuja that killed 25 people.
Police also claimed Shekau had been killed in the 2009 assault, but he appeared less than a year later in video clips being circulated in Nigeria. Some say he had been shot in the leg and went into hiding in Chad and Sudan.
Shekau had been seen by some as more eager to resort to violence than Yusuf and has having pushed the late leader into carrying out attacks sooner than he might have liked.
In videos, Shekau also appears far less charismatic than Yusuf, who rallied youths to his cause by excoriating corruption and lashing out at authorities in his rousing speeches.
The voice said to be Shekau in the message posted on YouTube on Thursday said “we attacked the security formations because our members were arrested and tortured. Our women and children have also been arrested.
“They should know that they also have wives and children,” he said. “We can also abduct them. It is not beyond our powers.”
In another part of the message, he says, “I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams.”